Europe's latest rocket launcher Vega has thundered into the sky bringing new capability to the continent's space programme.
The brand new spacecraft shot off bang on schedule from a launchpad in Kourou, French Guiana, like a blazing torch through scattered cloud.
The rocket will complement the European Space Agency's heavy-lifting Ariane launchers and recently introduced, medium-sized, Soyuz newcomers by putting smaller payloads into orbit.
It is a powerful new launcher in ESA's arsenal because, unlike most small rockets, it can handle several satellites at once.
This inaugural flight, labelled VV01, was carrying two Italian satellites, one of which will test Einstein's theory of general relativity, plus seven small mini "CubeSats" for European universities.
Space scientists were delighted as they watched Vega race into space exactly as planned at 10am GMT on February 13 - the earliest opportunity in a three-hour launch window. The speed of the lift-off was impressive compared to ESA's lumbering workhorse Ariane V which is around six times heavier.
"It is a great day for ESA," the agency's Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain, said after the launch. "In a little more than three months, Europe has increased the number of launchers it operates from one to three, widening significantly the range of launch services offered by the European operator Arianespace. There is not any more one single European satellite which cannot be launched by a European launcher."
Vega is designed to carry satellites weighing between 300kg and 2,500 kg into polar and low-Earth orbits, mainly for scientific missions and those studying our own planet.
Conceived back in the 1990s as a sister ship to complement the Ariane family, Vega was designed using concepts for solid-fuel developed by the Italian space agency ASI. More than a billion euros have been invested in the project.
There is huge demand for the services of such a launcher. There is a long waiting list for room on the old missile launchers that usually send smaller satellites into space.
The 40 million euro qualification flight was fitted with many sensors to send data back to tell how the rocket behaved. The cost of future mission will come down as it becomes established.
Countdown for the first launch ended with the 30-metre high rocket's P80 solid-propellant engine being fired, lifting Vega within a fraction of a second from a pad previously used by ESA's Ariane I rocket.
This first stage burned out and separated after 1 minute 54 seconds. Then a second later, the Xefiro-23 second stage ignited. That was jettisoned 3 minutes 22 secnds into the flight.
Vega's Zefiro-9 third stage fired around 16 seconds later. As the rocket continued to soar into the heavens, the protective fairing around the satellites it was carrying was discarded before the third stage separated.
The AVUM liquid-fuel fourth stage was then due to fire twice before Italy's LARES laser-ranging satellite was released, then again before separation of ALMaSat-1 and the seven CubeSats.